Hitting UK cinemas on June 2nd, 22.214.171.124 is the latest movie from ground-breaking British writer, director and actor Noel Clarke and follows four girls who find themselves caught up in a major diamond heist.
Seenit.co.uk’s Martin Hoscik and Phil Newman talked to Noel about the film, where he sees his future and what it’s really like to be “famous”…
Seenit.co.uk: Tell us about the thinking behind the film – where did the idea come from?
Noel: The intention was just to do something different that wasn’t being done here, because even with the other films I wrote, Kidulthood and Adulthood, other people do those films now, so I wanted to tilt the axis and do something that nobody else was doing.
What Kidulthood showed was that there was an audience – a massive, untapped audience – that wasn’t just the little ‘urban’ audience they thought there was, but a potentially mainstream audience which has now been tapped into, but before we just didn’t do. You could argue that even commercial films like Streetdance wouldn’t have happened if it wasn’t for Kidulthood, because that’s that audience.
Before, American films would come over with that sort of stuff, clean up $8m at the box office and head off back to America laughing their arses off, and we’d all be like, ‘$8 million at the box office? How’d they do that??!!’ you know? Kidulthood and, to a greater extent, Adulthood – people don’t realise this, but Adulthood was only shown at 150 screens. There’s a list of only about 20 films ever which have made more than £3m on less than 200 screens and Adulthood is number 12 – and the rest of them are, like, Walk the Line, Brokeback Mountain, you know?
That’s a mainstream audience that was waiting to be tapped into, and now it has. We have a deal with ICON now to make the films we want to do. They won’t make everything, it’s a ‘first look’ deal, so they have the right to say no, but essentially if they like it, they’ll do it. It’s people trusting in the vision of trying to make more commercial films. But now, when everyone’s going, ‘Let’s do that,’ my thing is to just go slightly askew and shift. That’s why I wrote this.
Seenit.co.uk: You’re known for a particular kind of film: very contemporary, urban stories which aren’t about nice people taking their clothes off for good causes or filled with wigs and bodices. Is there a type of film you’ve not done which you think ‘I fancy having a go at that’?
Noel: I just want to make films. It’s interesting because I do think I’m a more contemporary type of person. When people talk about plays and stuff like that and they go [adopts a posh accent] ‘Oh, I was reading poetry and Keats says, or Shakespeare wrote’, I think ‘Fuck them!’ man. Seriously, I’m not interested. People think I’m uncultured because I’m supposed to like stuff that’s hundreds of years old. Same with paintings, art, even old music. My missus loves Sinatra, and I respect that, I understand it, but I like modern stuff and I’ve realised over the years that I’m very much a modernist. I don’t even know if that’s the word for it…
Seenit.co.uk: …a contemporarist?
Noel: Yeah – I like modern art, modern poetry, modern plays, contemporary stuff, what’s happening now, and that’s what I’ve tried to put across in the films that I’ve done so far.
Seenit.co.uk: What struck me about 126.96.36.199 is that although the film is about strong women doing things most films only show men doing, it never pauses to say, ‘Hey, I’m about strong women’. It just gets on with…
Noel: Absolutely, it just goes forward. I think that’s the thing about writing characters as opposed to writing…
Seenit.co.uk: a concept?
Noel: Yeah, as in ‘Oh my God, they’re girls!’ You just write the characters the way you want to. It was always going to be about girls, but while I was writing it I never thought, ‘I can’t say that because she’s got boobs or whatever’, I just wanted to write the characters as they were.
Seenit.co.uk: How did you, as a masculine, heterosexual guy, approach writing such strong female characters?
Noel: I was raised by my mum alone you know, and I see her as a strong woman, particularly more so now I’ve got a child myself, you know – I’m knackered! – and she raised me on her own, there’s two of us, me and the Missus. I think I gravitate towards stronger people – again, my wife’s a strong woman – so I wanted to do a film that also celebrated that, so they’re not the damsels-in-distress but actually they’re the heroes, they save the day.
Seenit.co.uk: Can you tell us about your decision to structure the film as an exploration of each of the girl’s separate timelines rather than a straightforward linear narrative?
Noel: I wanted to do that because films I love, like Pulp Fiction and Doug Liman’s Go – which, if you haven’t seen, you have to see – are told out of sequence too. This is the British Go. When I saw those films, they blew my mind and ever since then I’ve wanted to do a film that’s told like that, where you have to piece it together as you’re watching it. I don’t mind people going, ‘I don’t understand why he said that’, or ‘Why’s that happening?’, I don’t mind that, because when it comes together in your mind it’s like, ‘Ah right, that’s why!’ I like that kind of stuff and that’s what I wanted to do.
Seenit.co.uk: Did you write the whole story and then divide it up into each timeline, or did you write each one separately?
Noel: Weirdly, I wrote it in the order it happens in the film. I guess it would have been easier to do it in sequence and then chop it up, but I wrote it as is. However, as I was writing my final draft, I had a Word document open with all the timelines, so I would check ‘If she’s there at that time, can she be here, does it affect her in any way? Nope fine, she can do that.’
And then, when we were in pre-production, we had four big timelines stretched across the wall just to double-check every single moment. There are clever little time jumps in the film where you kind of think, ‘Well, what does she do in those few hours?’ Like, for example, on Sunday morning and Kerys has failed her driving test, it’s about 11-something and she calls Emma Roberts’ character and she’s in bed and then she’s coming down the stairs.
And that’s a few hours later, because she says to her family, ‘Having lunch without me?’ which immediately means it’s 1.30 or something, and then she’s at work pretty soon after. So there are moments when we jump time a bit, because you can’t really explain it: she can’t get hold of Shannon, she can’t get hold of Cassandra, so what else should she do? She’s just at home, so you don’t need to show it.
Seenit.co.uk: Are you musically-minded? Because what struck me was how strong the soundtrack was, how it differentiated between the girls’ stories and helped tell the story musically.
Noel: That’s right, and if you notice, there’s very little score – only about 15% of it is score and the rest is sourced music, though some of it was made for the film. I’m musically-minded when I’m making a film and I immerse myself in music for months…
Seenit.co.uk: While you’re writing?
Noel: Not so much while I’m writing, but while we’re shooting and once we’ve shot it, it’s like ‘What song goes here, how does that fit, what works there…” and I immerse myself in it. But when I’ve finished a film, I just shut down. I don’t really buy a lot of music, music annoys me, but as soon as I’m starting a film, vooom, I’m back in.
Seenit.co.uk: The role of Tee you play in 188.8.131.52 is quite small. I wasn’t sure if you even had as much screen time as you did in Centurion…?
Noel: I think I have more in Centurion.
Seenit.co.uk: …and I wondered if your appearance, and that of people like Ben Miller and Mandy Patinkin, was part of the deal to secure finance for the movie?
Noel: It’s a tough thing to put together, you know, but whether I was in front of the camera or not, the film was financed off of me as a package, so it wasn’t a case of going after people like Emma because we needed to secure finance. There was no ‘If you’re in it, we can get…’ The film could have been full of unknowns and it wouldn’t have mattered.
So we were able to go to people and say, ‘This is what we have to offer you, this is what we’ve got’, and no-one could hold us to ransom because we didn’t need them. So essentially you can start asking people, ‘Do you want to be in this cool film? We’ve only got about £200,000 – do you want to come and do it?’ And people would read it and take it on script value, and that’s how we got all the cameos.
But I don’t think me appearing was dependent on that, and I didn’t play Tee for any reason other than it was the only part left I could play. I wrote this film before Adulthood, so originally I guess I was going to play Dylan or Manuel, the brother. I mean, the family changed over the years because it didn’t have to be Brazilian: it was a step-family, so depending on the actress. I could make Kerys half of anything I wanted her to be. But after I’d done Adulthood and won a BAFTA and got older, I couldn’t then play Dylan, because he’s a one-dimensional, pointless little thug.
Seenit.co.uk: That’s refreshingly self-aware! Movies are littered with actors who play parts they’re too old for or not right for in other ways…
Noel: You have to be. It wouldn’t benefit me either. It’s self-aware not just because of me being self-aware, but also just…
Seenit.co.uk: Personal integrity?
Noel: Yeah! Having come off the lead in a film which ended up being a BAFTA-winning film, what would be the point in me playing Dylan, a three-scene thug, or playing the brother? So the only part left for me to play that had any sort of meat that you could really do something with was that Tee guy. He didn’t have an age limit, he could be whatever he had to be, so I was like, ‘Fine, I’ll play that part’. And I like acting, I’ve always liked it, and again it was a different sort of role for me.
Seenit.co.uk: You’re one of only a few people who write and direct their own films. Is that what you want to continue doing – the whole thing – or are you interested in finding other people’s material to direct?
Noel: I’m less interested in finding other people’s material to direct, probably because I still feel like I’m learning. I came to directing through the side door, because no-one wanted to direct Adulthood – they thought Kidulthood was a fluke or they didn’t think it would be as successful – so by default it was left to me, and I was like, ‘Fine, I’ll do it, I’ll take the risk’. I’m not afraid to fail. And essentially, it became what it became.
The reason I’m fearless is because I was doing everything I could to look after my family when I was a gym instructor, and if this ends tomorrow, I’ll shovel shit if I have to, to feed them. Consequently, I’ll take risks. I’ll make 184.108.40.206 because other people wouldn’t dare make it, ‘cos they’d be scared of failing. So I prefer to direct my own material mostly. I definitely do want to go on to direct other people’s material, but while I’m self-aware enough to know that I’m still learning, and not get above myself and think I could direct anything, I’m happy to be comfortable doing my stuff.
Seenit.co.uk: You don’t fancy directing the next Bond then?
Noel: No. If I get to the level to do a Bond, it’ll be when I know I’m ready to do it. I’ll never just jump in because of the money. There’ll be a day when someone says they have a $100m blockbuster, and when I know I can do it, I’ll do it. I know my limits. I’m not scared of anything, but I know my limits.
Seenit.co.uk: What material do you have lined up next, and would you like to see other people directing your work?
Noel: Oh yes, this is part of the plan. I generate a lot of scripts – there are four scripts ready to go. So what we’re doing now is, I’ve got one director whose going to direct one maybe two, another directing a second and I might direct a third one, so that way we can get more films made. Of the three I’m not directing, two I would star in. The one that I want to do would be like an Adulthood job, play the lead, direct and write, but I don’t want to talk about that one, not because it’s majorly top secret but because it’s really different again, and I wouldn’t want anyone in a position to make a film now say, ‘That’s a good idea’, and do it first.
Seenit.co.uk: We both remember meeting you back in 2005 when you were filming the Doctor Who story The Christmas Invasion in London, and despite all the success you’ve had since, you seem just as down to earth as you were back then. Do you have good people around you to help you stay grounded?
Noel: Yeah, all my life. There’s like four main guys: one I met when I was 22, one when I was 16, another when I was 11, and another was born when I was 3 and our mums were friends. And those are the four people who are still around me all the time. Those are my mates. I don’t buy into all the celebrity doing this and that, because that’s the stuff that makes you think you can direct a $100m film before you can, do you know what I mean?
But it’s really weird, ‘cos the other day someone said to me, ‘You don’t realise how famous you are’, but I don’t see myself as famous, I’m just me. All I’m interested in doing is looking after my mum who looked after me, looking after my wife and the boy and any other little ones who might come along. That’s all I care about. I love this job to bits, but the priority is my family. So obviously, I do this job for me, because I love films, and I love making films that people want to watch, but to look after them.
Seenit.co.uk: You’re a big user of social networking – I’ve seen that you take time to answer questions on sites like Twitter – and I wondered how important your fan-base and its following of you through social media are to you and to maintaining ‘brand Noel’?
Noel: I think it’s very important. I see so many people who moan about it, who say ‘I can’t be doing that’, or ‘Can I go out the back door?’ Listen, there’s a difference between watching something on TV and paying seventy quid to put a bum on a seat in a cinema. I mean, you take someone with you, have a meal, buy your tickets, snacks and pay for travel you’re looking at seventy or eighty quid…These people spend money, they buy your films, they support you, they turn up at places for you to sign your name, so you better show them some respect man!
Seenit.co.uk: There are people associated with successful film & TV projects who, when they leave, almost race to distance themselves from what they’ve done. What do you think that says to those fans who have followed them and then read those comments?
Noel: It says you think you’re too big for your boots. Sometimes you can’t go back to things, but what you shouldn’t do is dismiss that part of your life as unhelpful, because if it wasn’t for that thing, you probably wouldn’t be where you are now. Every part of your career is what puts you at the point you’re at and so you have to respect that, and I always do.
Some of my most loyal fans are probably still Doctor Who fans. I mean, the BAFTA might have been nominated by the industry, but then it was public vote – who do you think was voting?! I respect those people. And I respect them not just as ‘fans’ – because who am I to have ‘fans’ anyway? – but as people who respect what I do and I respect them back.
If people take the time to follow me on Twitter and Facebook, I appreciate that, I really do, and I think anyone who doesn’t take time to engage with the people who support them shouldn’t be doing the job.
Noel Clarke, thank you!